Alix Lambert is a filmmaker, photographer and writer living in NYC. Her films include the Independent Spirit Award-nominated The Mark of Cain, Bayou Blue and Mentor, and she has also directed shorts and web series. She is currently in production on Goodbye, Fat Larry. Lambert is the author of four books: Mastering The Melon, The Silencing, Russian Prison Tattoos and Crime. Learn more about her work here.
The following, which appears in Alix Lambert’s book Courtroom, is exclusively reprinted here by kind permission of the author. – N.D.
Visit any courtroom in the USA — they are open to the public — and you will find yourself surrounded by theater, politics, history, law, performance, drawing, and community. If you want to understand the community you live in, simply sit in a courtroom and pay attention. For several years, I have been sitting in on court cases making sketches in the tradition of courtroom artists, and writing down verbatim snippets of legal exchanges and conversations during the proceedings. I’ve observed lawyers, judges, witnesses, family members, jurors, stenographers, officers, and defendants as they all pass through the courtroom. My drawings and interviews have captured the range of experiences that can be found in any court: from people facing life-changing decisions to those simply going about their everyday work. The resulting images and text are a portrait of our criminal justice system and, by extension, a portrait of America — how the system treats its citizens and how we treat each other.
Albert Woodfox has spent more time in solitary confinement than any other American. Woodfox, along with Robert King and Herman Wallace, are often referred to as the Angola Three. As members of the Black Panther party, Woodfox, King, and Wallace advocated for prisoners’ rights, education, and protection within the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a notorious prison also known as Angola.
Alix Lambert: Let’s talk about your memory of your first experience in a courtroom.
Albert Woodfox: I was very afraid. This was before I had any knowledge of court proceedings or the law. You try to put up this masculine image of being brave and confronting whatever it is, but deep down inside, I was scared to death. I learned later on in life that even with the knowledge I had acquired about the law and the Constitution and court proceedings — the fear is always there. For me it was constant fear that allowed me to function and to use the self-taught knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and court and due process — but still, I think subconsciously you realize that no matter how much knowledge you have of the law or of court proceedings, you are still vulnerable, very vulnerable.
AL: Did anyone help to prepare you or help you to understand what you were going to be up against?
AW: No. Public defenders — [that] was a joke. And the sad thing about it? Hasn’t much changed. There’s been some changes. You have some lawyers now that are genuinely interested in guilt or innocence or constitutional violations, statutory violations, but at that time, public defenders were lawyers who couldn’t make it. At least that’s the way they were viewed by prisoners and the experience they had with [public defenders]. Some prisoners knew more about the law than the public defender that was assigned to their case. These public defenders, they might have 200 or 300 cases assigned to them. So they don’t have time to do research and study your case. They’re not concerned with guilt or innocence, at least at that time. It was just — move the process along. You’re aware of this. You may not be able to intellectualize it, but instinctively you recognize what’s going on and how powerless you are to stop it.
AL: Could you explain how you were able to teach yourself law while you were incarcerated?
AW: Well, some of the inmate counsels that work in Angola brought us law books, even though they weren’t supposed to. As a matter of fact, a very good friend — a guy named Norris Henderson, who heads an organization called VOTE [Voice of the Experienced] — was one of the inmate counsels and librarians during a long period of time, and he helped us tremendously as far as bringing us books we wanted. There was a guy named Arthur Mitchell who initially knew about the law. He was what we call a jailhouse lawyer. He started out helping us understand the law, the Constitution. My case was overturned three different times. Robert King filed a motion on my behalf that’s called a post-conviction — the first one. In court proceedings, you file a writ — a direct appeal which is right after you’ve been convicted, and a post-conviction is after all of your direct appeals. If you go to federal court, it’s called a writ of habeas corpus, which, thanks to President Clinton and the conservative politicians in the country, was greatly weakened.
AL: Who filed the other two times for your case?
AW: Lawyers. Case lawyers. You try to talk to them in a manner to let them know that you know a lot about the law. I always felt as though these lawyers just didn’t care — but over a period of time, I came to understand that they didn’t know. These are lawyers who barely made it out of law school. Barely passed a bar. No reputable law firm would hire them, and so [working as] public defenders was a way of surviving. It was a job.
AL: What do you think is the first priority of what needs to change in the court system?
AW: I think the courts should be allowed to take into consideration what I refer to as mitigating circumstances, [circumstances] that may cause individuals to commit crimes. The way the court is now, the court is not concerned with guilt or innocence — they seem to be more concerned with process. I always use the analogy that the court is not concerned with whether or not an innocent man is being hanged; their only concern is that he is being hanged properly.
AL: I was happy to see the amendment [allowing felons to vote] pass in Florida; I wanted to ask you about that.
AW: I thought that was great. Two great changes in the law was that one and the one in Louisiana. Louisiana and Oregon [used to be] the only two states in the Union that allowed 10-2 convictions. Those laws are based in the history of racism and Jim Crow. After the Civil War you had millions of black slaves who had been empowered by the North winning, the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln, and the Emancipation Proclamation. In the Constitution, in particular, the Preamble was not written for African Americans. Our descendants, we eventually became eligible and started to exercise [our rights] and make demands on the court system. They were not made for us, you know. They were not made for black slaves at that time.
One person I wanted to mention is Angela Allen-Bell. She’s a law professor at Southern University. She may never get the recognition that she’s supposed to. She was the engine behind [Amendment] 2 [requiring a unanimous jury verdict for felony trials]. Louisiana and Oregon were the only two states that could convict you on a non-capital case with only 10 jurors. The reason for that law was to dilute the chances of black jurors having an effect on the decisions.
Another person was Judge Brady, the federal judge who overturned my case twice. I was surprised at how much respect and belief he had in the law. Guilt or innocence seemed to matter to him. I’m sorry we lost it but it was the first time that I could remember being in a courtroom where I actually had some hope — because of his philosophy and his rulings. [After I was released] I was speaking at Southern University and he actually came, him and his wife. It was so strange because I had a Black Lives Matter T-shirt on and it didn’t seem to matter to Judge Brady. We talked and I thanked him for the way he conducted his court and he basically said, “The law was on your side. The Constitution guaranteed that you were entitled to the same thing and all I did was follow the law.” I just always felt that it was more than that, that somehow my case had managed to test his humanity, you know?
A lot of people never can understand why I don’t feel anger or bitterness toward members of the jury. It was simply that I understood that those jurors were also victims because they were making decisions on information provided to them by the state. So I didn’t think there was anything out of the ordinary for the jurors to believe in the state — from the time you go to school you start being indoctrinated with the rule of law and integrity of social institutions. As you get older and you come into contact with the institution, more and more you realize that it’s all theory. Philosophical theory and not facts.
AL: I’m interested in your family and how you can be with them now.
AW: Well, you know, there was an episode — I don’t know, five years ago — when my brother came to visit and he was telling me about a conversation he had with my daughter. Her name is Brenda. She started crying, and he was like, “What’s wrong?” and she was like, “Well, I don’t have a daddy.” “Well, you have a daddy, you know—he’s in prison.” Right now I’m in the process of building a relationship with my family. My main focus is on my great-grandkids. I think I have an opportunity to be an influence in their life in ways that I missed with my daughter and my grandkids because of the imprisonment. There’s no accelerated way of developing family bonds, you just have to take time. Over the last 40 years, I have developed a very strong discipline to be patient.
AL: How did you train yourself in that way?
AW: With me it just became an experience over the years: a thirst for knowledge, always dealing — even now — with the belief that I never knew enough. What I knew was only an avenue to find out more. I think that was something inherited from my mom. In hindsight I see a lot of things in me from my mother. The gifts she gave me are strength, determination, a strong sense of loyalty and devotion. Those are the qualities of being a human being that serve you well and contributed to me surviving 47 years of solitary confinement. Those are the things I’m trying to pass on to my great-grand kids, spending time with them. They are over here every chance that they get. As a matter of fact, they were just here over the weekend with my daughter. I came back from Sweden Sunday and they came to the airport. She had to get them up out of bed because she couldn’t leave them. They were in the back seat and my grandson went to sleep and Dawn [my great-granddaughter] stayed up. As soon as they got to the airport and I got in the car, she waved and kissed me — and those kinds of things, you can’t rush. They just develop as life, day to day. So that’s pretty much where I’m at with my family. Creating memories.
AL: Last time I saw you it was right after Trump had been elected. How are you feeling about the past two years?
AW: I wish I could say I’m surprised and shocked and all that but that’s just not the case. You remember when we talked a while back? I told you that after being out of prison a couple of weeks and observing things among society, I had come to the conclusion that nothing had changed — or rather I should say there was no real change. Whatever changed was superficial. Instead of the blatant brutality of racism, everything had become coded, you know?
I think the most difficult question I get asked is: “How did you do it?” There is no pat answer. But I do think the foundation for me surviving [almost 44 consecutive years], and Herman surviving 41 years, and succumbing to liver cancer, and Robert doing 29 years, was becoming a member of the Black Panther Party. It gave me a strong sense of self-worth, and gave me a direction and the belief that it wasn’t the way I started, but the way I finished that mattered in life. It gave me a sense that change is possible if you have the strong support of someone who believes in you. Society as a whole must be willing to accept that you are no longer the person that you may have been, and I find that acceptance lacking in American society.